Complete Streets for Safer Walks

A few years ago Florida had a vexing PR problem. Transportation safety studies released by Smart Growth America in 2011 and 2014 reported that four Florida metropolitan areas — Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville — had the worst pedestrian death rates in the country. Proportionately more pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in Florida than anywhere else. Beyond the terrible cost of human life, that’s a major image issue in a state where the economy depends so heavily on the tens of millions of tourists who visit its beaches and amusement parks annually. Officials of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) reacted to the negative pedestrian safety ratings by deciding to implement a Complete Streets policy statewide and asking Smart Growth America for its assistance. Complete Streets are streets designed and built, or renovated, to ensure the safety and mobility of all users, whether cars, trucks, buses, bicyclists, pedestrians or mass transit riders. Smart Growth America administers the National Compete Streets Coalition, providing a wide range of assistance to governments eager to upgrade their transportation networks.

Complete Streets are streets designed and built to ensure the safety and mobility of all users.

“The biggest reason for our efforts here at the Florida DOT was the 2011 report by Smart Growth America called Dangerous by Design,” said Billy Hattaway, secretary of FDOT’s District One. “The state didn’t rank very well. Improvements were very necessary.”

Hattaway is overseeing FDOT’s efforts to implement a comprehensive Complete Streets plan. He said the implementation plan will be completed early next year, but the department is already requiring its engineers to incorporate Complete Streets values into all the projects they design.

Among the changes in FDOT’s designs, Hattaway said, are reducing lane widths on urban streets from 12 to 11 feet, making room for seven-foot wide bicycle lanes. Florida law requires motorists maintain a three feet separation from bikes. Hattaway said FDOT is going on “road diets” — reducing four-lane streets to two traffic lanes with left turn lanes and medians to improve pedestrian safety at crosswalks in the middle and wider bike lanes on the outside.

On busy U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota, Hattaway said, FDOT is developing a plan to replace nine signalized intersections with roundabouts. Roundabouts are an important element of Complete Streets plans because they slow traffic, improving bike and pedestrian safety.

The Complete Streets movement has grown rapidly since the term was coined by bike advocate Barbara McCann in a 2003 memo. McCann is now an undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has joined Smart Growth America in presenting awards to cities, counties and states that have developed the best Complete Streets plans.

“It was really about safety and access for everyone using the roadway, and that’s how the Complete Streets movement got started,” McCann said.

The National Complete Streets Coalition grew out of the discussion McCann triggered in 2003 and became part of Smart Growth America. Among the members of the Coalition are the AARP and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

Smart Growth America reports that cities, counties and states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed more than 950 Complete Streets policies. Those policies differ considerably, but share common objectives.

Roundabouts are an important element of Complete Streets plans because they slow traffic.

Kelly Yemen, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Hennepin County, Minn., said the goals of the Complete Street policy she helped to develop are “simply to increase bicycle ridership, improve health, reduce vehicle miles traveled on our roadways, improve the environment and just in general enhance the quality of life for our residents and really create good senses of place and connections within our cities.”

Hennepin County is about halfway done with developing an extensive network of bike trails connecting downtown Minneapolis and its suburbs, Yemen said.

“We have about 673 miles of bikeways out there currently that are considered part of our county system,” she said. “Between what the city’s working on, and the county’s working on, we’re trying to connect those trails to downtown so there are comfortable and protected facilities all the way.”

Basic bike lanes are off to the right side of traffic lanes and separated from cars by a painted line. In some advanced Complete Streets plans, the bikes lanes are separated from traffic by upright plastic strips called delineators. Better, safer options include curb-raised protected bike lanes and separate trails set aside just for bikers and pedestrians.

“All of us want to see the delineator lanes turned into curb-level bike lanes,” Yemen said. “You get a whole lot more riders than you get just by putting paint on the ground.”

Curb-level bike lanes shared with pedestrians are expensive, however. Yemen said it will likely take some time to add funding for extensive networks of curb-raised bike lanes to city and county transportation budgets.

Bike lanes and trails get much of the attention in Complete Streets improvements, but pedestrian safety and accessibility are equally important.

Walking improvements include installing curbed sidewalks where there aren’t any, putting in curb cuts and medians to make it easier for pedestrians to cross busy streets, clearly marking cross walks, removing brush and other obstacles that force people to walk in traffic lanes and installing street lights so walkers can see where they’re going at night.

“Major considerations in designing and building pedestrian- friendly walkways include complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it easier for older residents to get around and protecting the safety of children walking to school,” Yemen said.

Myrtle Beach, a major summer resort on the South Carolina coast, won a 2016 Mayor’s Challenge Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation for its plans to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. Myrtle Beach officials wanted to provide safe walking spaces for the 14 million tourists who visit its famed beach each year. The Coastal Carolinas Association of REALTORS® proposed a walkability audit by noted planning consultant Dan Burden, and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® provided a $15,000 grant to help pay for it. The local association presented the walkability plan to the community this fall, and the city is moving forward to implement it.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail can serve as a model for similar projects in other communities.

“Our density on the ocean front has increased, but the capacity of our streets really hasn’t followed suit,” said Myrtle Beach planner Kelly Mezzapelle. “We need to make the area more walkable so people don’t have to get in their cars and drive everywhere they want to go.”

(For more on Myrtle Beach walkability improvements proposed to the city by the local REALTORS® association, see the story on page 58)

Indianapolis, Ind., has attracted international attention with its Cultural Trail, an eight-mile bike and pedestrian pathway linking six cultural districts in the city’s downtown area. The Cultural Trail connects museums, galleries, theaters, a growing restaurant scene, bars and other attractions.

Planners from U.S. cities and as far away as Cologne, Germany, have visited Indianapolis to see how the trail can serve as a model for similar projects in their communities. In 2015, Smart Growth America rated the Indianapolis Complete Streets Policy the best in the nation. Because of the Cultural Trail, the New York Times put Indianapolis on its list of 52 places to visit in 2015.

The Times said planners are flocking to Indianapolis “to see how the city most famous for a 500-mile car race managed to swap autos for bike lanes and still keep everything rolling smoothly.”

Karen Haley, executive director of Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc., said the trail combines the latest and best facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians. She said the trail is wider than a typical sidewalk, shared by bikes and pedestrians, protected by curbs and separated from the street in places by a botanical garden. Haley said the trail cost $63 million, including $4 million for public art, all of which came from private donors or federal grants.

“No local tax dollars were spent to build the Cultural Trail,” she said.”

”It’s helped put Indianapolis on the map in terms of a city that’s getting it right when it comes to urban development and connectivity,” Haley said. “It really is allowing you to visit or work in our city without owning a vehicle.” Greg Ballard, who was mayor when Indianapolis won the 2012 Smart Growth America award, said the Cultural Trail has had a huge economic impact on Indiana’s capital city.

“Within a half mile of the trail there’s an increase in assessed value of over a billion dollars,” Ballard said. “That’s massive. There’s no question that there’s additional economic development along trails. People want to live next to the trails. We had a Fortune 200 company here in Indianapolis open up a headquarters. They wanted to be on the trail.”

In “Safer Streets, Stronger Economies," a 2015 report based on policies implemented in 37 cities, Smart Growth America concluded that Complete Streets policies created safer streets; increased foot, bicycle and transit traffic; and stimulated economic growth.

“Our analysis found that safer conditions created by Compete Streets projects avoided a total of $18.1 million in collision and injury costs in one year alone,” the study reported.

It went on to report that the economic impact of many of those policies had not yet been studied, but 11 places reported increased employment and eight said their Complete Streets policies “were at least partly responsible for increased investment from the private sector.”

One of the projects involved in the study was the Complete Streets renovations of Edgewater Drive, the main street in the College Park neighborhood north of downtown Orlando, Fla. The street was reduced from four lanes to three, bike lanes were added and on-street parking spaces were widened. The report indicated auto traffic decreased by 12 percent, but bicycle traffic increased by 30 percent and pedestrian usage was up by 23 percent.

Complete Streets policies created safer streets; increased foot, bicycle and transit traffic; and stimulated economic growth.

In addition, collisions dropped by 40 percent and injuries fell by 71 percent.

“As a result, more people want to be on Edgewater Drive,” according to the report. “The corridor has seen 77 net new businesses open and 560 new jobs created since 2008. The most dramatic results, however, were in long-term real-estate and business investment. Since the project was first proposed, the value of property adjacent to Edgewater Drive has risen 80 percent and the value of property within half a mile of the road has risen 70 percent.”

Planners are strong advocates for Complete Streets policies, and more and more elected officials are getting on board, but selling projects to the public can be challenging.

Smart Growth America rated the Complete Streets policy in Reading, Pa., as the best in the country in 2015. Reading received a perfect score of 100, the first time that happened in the annual Smart Growth America ratings.

“Reading totally got it,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “They understood how policy can shape the feel of a community and took it to heart.”

Complete Streets policies can shape the feel of a community.

Since then, however, the mayor whose administration developed the Complete Streets Policy lost his bid for re-election in the primary. The new mayor is committed to the Complete Streets Policy, said Ralph Johnson, Reading’s director of public works, but there are complications.

“Trying to get the citizens to buy into Complete Streets seems to be more challenging than we were expecting,” Johnson said. “It’s change, and change takes time. The city is a financially challenged city so implementing the policy is a challenge for us to accomplish at an expeditious rate. We need to be patient and move at a steady rate.”

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